Mordant’s Need by Stephen R. Donaldson
Donaldson’s books seem characterized by the idea of putting different and compelling spins on the time-honored fantasy trope of summoning a reluctant hero from another land to battle evil. His Thomas Covenant books are his best-known works, and they’re pretty great (although his swallowed-the-entire-dictionary prose is an acquired taste) but this duology is an under-appreciated pleasure, featuring some of his best characters, a genuinely clever plot that keeps the pages turning, and a world that’s so richly realized that it’s a shame he only chose to set two books in it.
The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan
Morgan’s best known for his sci-fi — he wrote the excellent Takeshi Kovacs books, which described a world where people’s personalities are digitized and can be downloaded into new bodies, a fascinating conceit that’s well worth investigating if you like sci-fi. His foray into fantasy is also good, making a point of subverting the sword-and-sorcery clichés that dominate so much of the genre: one of The Steel Remains‘ protagonists is openly gay, another is a drug-abusing halfbreed, there are several genuinely disturbing scenes (including rape, so be warned), and there’s enough swearing to make Deadwood fans blush. There’s an interesting interview with Morgan about the book and the ideas behind it here.
The Bas-Lag series by China Miéville
Anti-Tolkien alt-fantasy with a Marxist bent? Hey, whyever not? Miéville is well known in fantasy circles for both his politics and his ongoing crusade to liberate the genre from the influence of The Lord of the Rings and its associated works, and his own books work within a sort of border zone that draws on any number of genres and influences. The Bas-Lag series, for instance, merges elements of sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian fiction to create a world both strange and familiar — it’s a magical land inhabited by exotic creatures that nevertheless bears a distinct resemblance to our own world, and the setting for a whole lot of anti-capitalist allegory.
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin
We rather hope you’ve read these if you maintain any interest in fantasy, but in our experience Ursula LeGuin’s wonderful Earthsea trilogy and their subsequent sequels have, for whatever reason, rather slipped off the radar of modern readers. This is a shame, as they’re well worth investigating — LeGuin is a lovely prose stylist, and her archipelago world is beautifully realized.
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Similarly, Jack Vance’s work is hugely influential but curiously overlooked in the 21st century. The books are an early example of fantasy set on a largely unrecognizabale Earth (an idea that’d later be picked up by all sorts of fantasy authors, from Terry Brooks to Piers Anthony), and their narratives were interesting, often employing antiheroes as protagonists and generally playing with the tropes that were already becoming established in the fantasy genre when the first Dying Earth stories were published in the 1950s. The books also laid at least part of the foundation for Dungeons and Dragons, as the game’s inventor Gary Gygax relates here.
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
Most authors would be happy with building one compelling universe; Wells seems to come up with a new one every few years. The Death of the Necromancer is one of her earliest novels, and one of her best — it creates a setting that falls somewhere between fantasy and Victorian gothic, populated with characters both relatable and memorable. Wells’ prose is wryly amusing and easy to read, and the result is a book that’s awfully difficult to set back on the bedside table.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
A Song of Fire and Ice brought epic fantasy back into the public consciousness, and if you like your fantasy novels weighty and lengthy, then you really need look no further than this. It’s the introduction to what’s apparently going to be a series of ten novels called The Stormlight Archive, and given that this first volume weighs in at 1,007 pages, we imagine that Sanderson is going to be keeping his fans busy for quite some time.
The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts
Sure, you’ve probably read Magician and its sequels, and maybe investigated some of the innumerable other books Feist has written in the decades since in a bid to wring every dollar drop of inspiration from his Riftwar setting. But these are by far the best books he’s ever been involved with, eschewing the Tolkien-lite of Midkemia for an exploration of the world on the other side of the rift — Kelewan, a Japanese-influenced world that’s all internecine politics and backstabbing. The prose is not exactly Shakespeare, but still, these are definitely page-turners. (Also, it’s fun to play Raymond E. Feist bingo: every chapter starts with a sentence that goes “The [noun] [verb]ed.” Every. Single. Chapter.)
Andre Norton, generally
The endlessly prolific Andre Norton published a remarkable volume of work between 1934 and her death in 2005. (Yes, Andre is a she — she was born Alice Norton but took the pseudonym because genre fiction by women wasn’t well looked upon when she started publishing extensively in the 1930s and ’40s.) With such an extensive catalog, we’re guessing there’s at least some of her work you haven’t read — so get to it!
The Secret History of Fantasy, ed. Peter S. Beagle
And finally, if you’re interested in the idea of alt-fantasy — worlds that eschew Tolkien elves/dwarves/magic swords clichédom, and stories that subvert or otherwise mess with the conventional hero’s journey narrative arc — then you could do a lot worse than starting with this anthology. It encompasses 19 stories by authors familiar and unknown, from genre stalwarts like Octavia Butler and the aforementioned Ursula K. LeGuin to people like Jonathan Lethem and Stephen King. There’s something here for pretty much everyone.
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